Ahmed Mater in Canvas Magazine on his role as the Founder Director of Misk Art Institute
The history of patronage has always shown the bonds between artists and their publics, notably, a paying public. It follows that artists commanding the purse of those with the means to support production must inherently serve some greater purpose. This system of patronage and cultural production has existed from Mesopotamia through the Elizabethan courts, resulted in the architecture of the world’s great cities and the mechanisms of the contemporary gallery scene – its endurance suggests a purpose as varied as its product. Whether for prestige or acclaim, social ends or entertainment, the common thread through time and place is that the artist remains compelled to make, and others remain committed to facilitating. But the relationship is not a simple equation – threatening its harmony are questions of integrity, propaganda and commercial corruption.
These thoughts were prominent when we first dreamt of the idea of an institute for art in Saudi Arabia. An institute is inherently non-commercial, dedicated to the fostering of artistic production and appreciation but set beyond the more commercial aims of the market. Yet, it requires support – as the ideas first took shape, it became clear that, for the artist and the arts institute, patronage is not only a means to continue producing art non-commercially but also signals a degree of acceptance – a social willing at the very least. In a kingdom where art was confined to underground spaces, pushed to the periphery, patronage has become a barometer of space gradually opening, granting artists a degree of social centrality. But even in this positive move, questions and resistance quickly follow – does an artist lose something of their intellectual credentials by occupying this space?
I was appointed the director of Misk Art Institute in the first half of 2017. The story is becoming mythologised already – a trip to China with a reformer Prince, finding common ground in the shared acknowledgement that art had to have a place in a changing kingdom. But, as with all projects of such ambition, it had started long before this crystallising moment, with small catalysts, ideas that shifted and fused – conversations with peers, collaborators and the people who have, along the way, supported the notion of a place for art in Saudi.
The idea of patronage in Saudi must be traced to another place with equally fabled origins, Al-Miftaha Arts Village, where I first practiced art. The story is well known, with five sons of Asir part of the 9/11 attacks, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, the governor of the province, recognised that art was an essential balsam for this reeling community – both heeling and preventative. Miftaha means ‘opening’, and from that unlocking there is an early precedent for what many beyond the kingdom perceive as today’s major and extraordinary cultural revolution. Then, as now, patronage was opening a space (albeit, at that time, limited) where grassroots artistic energy met top down support to shape social change – it was not a space for either artists or patrons, the centre or the edge, but a new space created between, where the two met and something new happened.
The identity of a project like Misk Art Institute is built on interactions and conversations that were seeded within that long-percolating arts community – small yet vibrant, at the periphery but strident, under-supported and, accordingly, adaptable. As the conversations moved from the edge to the centre, it became clear if we were to retain this energy, we could not adopt models from elsewhere. Instead, the space must be framed by top down support, but filled with the energy of grassroots artistic thinking. We do not anticipate that this move will be without tension, but we believe, as in Al-Miftaha, that the space that opens can be occupied with something new – there’s something inherently experimental in the move.
The roots of my practice are the foundations upon which I engage and work with this new role. There is both continuity and change – my role as an artist has been focussed on documenting and examining the realities of Saudi Arabia, its position and narratives in a global context – faith, the environment, socio-economics and geopolitics. I am interested in collective memories, unofficial histories, the substance that makes Saudi what it is today. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the patron who makes this new dreaming possible, invited me to envision Misk Art Institute, the greatest shift was not from artist to administrator, but from documenting what is and was to instigating what could be. Yet my subject matter is the same, I believe in channelling the profusion of pre-existing histories and artistic voices into this new space to see what emerges.
How to name this new space where top-down support meets grassroots artistic production, where the plans were not fixed but continually developing and shifting. Finding the right word is always a challenge when operating bilingually, when a few words might be all you have to engage new audiences, at home and abroad, each with loaded ideas of your country and your field. An institute can be academic, is conceived to further a niche, but where that might imply something fixed, could verge into the hierarchical, we are instead proposing a model that is diffuse and collaborative. In Arabic, our words have roots that imply constellations of meanings – we don’t often refer to them, or use words conscious of their resonances, but for a grassroots institute, it feels fitting that the obscure origins of ‘Mahad’ (Arabic for institute), can be traced to mean ‘a place of promise’. And so, we find in this space where patronage encounters artist-led, grassroots energy both of that word’s meanings – a place of potential and a place of commitment. Potential for social change and commitment to artist-led innovation.